EDIT: someone on lesswrong pointed out that I’m missing something. I still stand by what I said below (why it’s important not to confuse the truth with your wishes), but now I understand what people mean when they say “all people are equal”: they mean that everyone has the same moral value (which, based on their actions, it seems most people don’t actually believe, but should be strived towards).

The sentence “All people are equal.” (and ones like it) seems simple at first glance but actually contains a lot of depth. Depending on how you interpret it, it can be false or subjective, but I don’t think it’s true.

The most naive interpretation is obviously false. All people are literally not equal in the physical sense. Our atoms are in different configurations. Neither are we equal in the psychological sense. We react to the same stimuli in different ways.

So what in the world do people mean when they say all people are equal?

Do they mean everyone has equal rights? That makes a little more sense, but it is not true. I do not have the same rights as someone living in Switzerland or China.

Hmm, maybe they mean that everyone has equal opportunities? A quick thought falsifies this interpretation. So what do they mean?

What someone really means when they say “All people are equal.” is “I wish for all people to be equal!” which is neither true nor false. It is a wish about the future. I do wish for all people to be equal (but not in the Harrison Bergeron sense, more along the lines of equal rights).

The reason we knee-jerk react to “All people are equal.” is because our culture has conditioned us, from the humanism of the Enlightenment to the Declaration of Independence and onwards, to believe it is true. We don’t realize that we are really stating a wish when we think we are making a true statement, and this is dangerous.

Conversely, there are some statements that look like opinions (or maybe even falsehoods) at first glance, but are actually true. (Statements about intelligence fit this category very nicely, but I’m going to leave them out.) These statements usually go against what culture has conditioned us to believe. For example: “All people are not equal.” This statement is true but is usually interpreted as “I wish for all people to have unequal rights.” (a wish), but it should just be interpreted as a fact. Again, this is dangerous, since it masks what is really true.

In order to push society forward – to actually make everyone equal and become better – we need to separate our beliefs and wishes. If we believe that something that is not true (but that we want to be true) is actually true, we won’t notice it as much and will not spend as much time and effort on fixing it. If, however, we could accurately believe the (sometimes inconvenient) truth, we could reduce the time until our wishes become the truth.

Now go fix the world!